Glossary: Artful dubbers and dodgy expletives

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The Independent Online
RETURNING from the United States a couple of years ago, I settled down to watch the in-flight movie, a comedy heist film. It was memorable less for its plot than for its way with obscenities1 .

Whoever was responsible for providing the bland dub that would meet the airline's requirements had revolted at the prospect of snipping every four-letter word. Instead they substituted innocuous but similar-sounding words. 'Let's get out of this viking car]' an actor shrieked at one point. The strategy achieved its surreal peak when the star found himself with a pistol2 at his back. 'Is that a gun?' he asked. 'What do you think it is, stupid,' replied the hood, 'my duck?'

That solution was clearly mischievous but the problem remains for anyone faced with a mass audience, and in particular for television writers. After the 9 o'clock watershed dramatists can use live rounds, but before that writers have to resort to the verbal equivalents of blanks, words with a plausible sounding percussion but no lethal power.

Fake swearing is born out of the need to balance an artistic commitment to realism against a commercial ambition, and unless both are present the question doesn't arise. Joyce didn't agonise too much about offensive language, but then he wasn't aiming to be a Book of the Month Club selection.

Norman Mailer, on the other hand, was acutely aware of the detrimental3 effect of artistic integrity on sales figures. The result, notoriously, was The Naked and the Dead, in which a squad of adenoidal Marines battled their way through the fuggin' Pacific asking each other what the fug was going on.

Mailer's strategy successfully steered around offence but landed him in the ditch of the average reader's literalism: why were his soldiers having such trouble with their nasal passages, they wondered, at a considerable cost to terror and pity.

Facing the same problem for a sit-com about a British prison, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais had a happier solution: dig up a suitably obscure slang word and use it as a substitute. But though it was Porridge that gave 'naff off' and 'naffing' wide circulation, the Oxford English Dictionary's credit for first publication goes to Keith Waterhouse in Billy Liar (1959).

The connection is fairly direct - Clement and La Frenais worked on the musical version of the book and clearly thought the word would be useful, delivering the same rhythmic beat as the one they were avoiding, and even that repeated 'f' (perhaps why 'chuffing' is also used as an ersatz curse on television). Though the OED confidently cites 'naff' as a 'euphemistic substitute' Waterhouse remembers the word as services slang and it seems likely that there's an older root - in northern dialect 'naffy' means an idiot, a contemptible person, a meaning that connects to the more recent use of naff.

The latest verbal invention on our screens, though, is slightly different. 'Smegging', an abusive adjective used by the futuristic low-lives in the science-fiction comedy Red Dwarf, clearly has its origins in smegma. Smegma is - if you're eating you may want to put the paper down for a while - a 'sebaceous secretion, especially that found under the prepuce'; it derives from the Greek word for soap4 . In a way this is a real achievement, to invent a swearword that carries more offensive baggage than those hallowed by years of hushed avoidance.

What's ingenious about 'smegging' (you see how nasty it is now you know what it means?) is that about half of those who hear it won't understand the reference and those who do are unlikely to ring up the BBC to complain. The writers, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, play a similar trick with

one of their chief characters, Rimmer - an unexceptional name to most, the performer of a distinctly unsafe sexual practice to the few.

There is a nice irony here, though, given the general project to launder television dialogue. The OED also cites 'smegmatic', a 17th-century word meaning 'anything having the power to cleanse or scour'. Perhaps that's what they're getting at.

1 Exact etymology is unclear but probably from the Latin obscenus, meaning inauspicious, ill-omened. By transference, disgusting.

2 From the French pistolet, meaning a small dagger. There is a theory that the word transferred to the pistol because it bore the same relation to the arquebus as the pistolet did to larger blades.

3 From the Latin detrimentum, loss, damage, which in turn derives from deterere, to wear away, impair.

4 The early Teutonic saipon is the source for the Latin sapo. The word occurs in some Tartar languages, which may suggest it was introduced by trade with the East.